Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, by Charles Murray (Crown Forum, 416 pp., $27)
Charles Murray is back, and the debate about wealth and inequality will never be the same. Readers of the political scientist’s earlier work, especially The Bell Curve and Losing Ground, might assume that with his new book he is returning to the vexed subject of race. He is, but with a twist: Murray’s area of intensive focus (and data mining) is “the state of white America”—and it’s not what you might think.
According to Murray, the last 50 years have seen the emergence of a “new upper class.” By this he means something quite different from the 1 percent that makes the Occupy Wall Streeters shake their pitchforks. He refers, rather, to the cognitive elite that he and his coauthor Richard Herrnstein warned about in The Bell Curve. This elite is blessed with diplomas from top colleges and with jobs that allow them to afford homes in Nassau County, New York and Fairfax County, Virginia. They’ve earned these things not through trust funds, Murray explains, but because of the high IQs that the postindustrial economy so richly rewards.
Murray creates a fictional town, Belmont, to illustrate the demographics and culture of the new upper class. Belmont looks nothing like the well-heeled but corrupt, godless enclave of the populist imagination. On the contrary: the top 20 percent of citizens in income and education exemplify the core founding virtues Murray defines as industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religious observance. Yes, the elites rebelled against bourgeois America in the late 1960s and 1970s, but it wasn’t long before they put away their counterculture garb. Today, they work long hours and raise their doted-upon offspring in stable homes. One of the most ignored facts about American social life is that the divorce rate among the college-educated has been declining since the early 1980s, while their illegitimate children (as they used to be called) remain as rare as pickup trucks in their garages. Murray deems some of the Belmontians’ financial excesses “unseemly,” but for the most part, he finds them law-abiding and civically engaged—taking their children to church or synagogue, organizing petitions for new stoplights or parks, running Little League teams and PTA fundraisers.
The American virtues are not doing so well in Fishtown, Murray’s fictional working-class counterpart to Belmont. In fact, Fishtown is home to a “new lower class” whose lifestyle resembles The Wire more than Roseanne. Murray uncovers a five-fold increase in the percentage of white male workers on disability insurance since 1960, a tripling of prime-age men out of the labor force—almost all with a high school degree or less—and a doubling in the percentage of Fishtown men working less than full-time. Time-use studies show that these men are not using their newly found leisure to fix the dishwasher or take care of the kids. Mostly, they’re watching more television, getting more sleep—and finding trouble. The percentage of Fishtown men in prison quadrupled after 1974, and though crime rates declined there in the mid-1990s, mirroring national trends, they’re still markedly higher than they were in 1970. (Belmont, on the other hand, never experienced significant changes in crime or incarceration rates.) Fishtown folks cannot be said to be clinging to their religion: Murray finds a rise in the percentage of nonbelievers there. In fact, he found the same in Belmont. The difference is that Belmonters continue to join religious institutions and enjoy the benefits of their social capital. About 59 percent of Fishtowners now have no religious affiliation, compared with 41 percent of Belmonters.
Most disastrous for Fishtown residents has been the collapse of the family, which Murray believes is now “approaching a point of no return.” For a while after the 1960s, the working class hung on to its traditional ways. That changed dramatically by the 1990s. Today, under 50 percent of Fishtown 30- to 49-year-olds are married; in Belmont, the number is 84 percent. About a third of Fishtowners of that age are divorced, compared with 10 percent of Belmonters. Murray estimates that 45 percent of Fishtown babies are born to unmarried mothers, versus 6 to 8 percent of those in Belmont.
And so it follows: Fishtown kids are far less likely to be living with their two biological parents. One survey of mothers who turned 40 in the late nineties and early 2000s suggests the number to be only about 30 percent in Fishtown. In Belmont? Ninety percent—yes, ninety—were living with both mother and father. Many experts would define the cause as a dearth of “marriageable” men (see above). The causation goes the other way as well. Men who don’t marry don’t work—or at least, they work less hard. Severed from family life, they don’t attach themselves to community organizations, including churches, and in greatly disproportionate numbers they engage in antisocial, even criminal, behavior.
For all their degrees, the upper class in Belmont is pretty ignorant about what’s happening in places like Fishtown. In the past, though the well-to-do had bigger houses and servants, they lived in towns and neighborhoods close to the working class and shared many of their habits and values. Most had never gone to college, and even if they had, they probably married someone who hadn’t. Today’s upper class, on the other hand, has segregated itself into tony ghettos where they can go to Pilates classes with their own kind. They marry each other and pool their incomes so that they can move to “Superzips”—the highest percentiles in income and education, where their children will grow up knowing only kids like themselves and go to college with kids who grew up the same way.
In short, America has become a segregated, caste society, with a born elite and an equally hereditary underclass. A libertarian, Murray believes these facts add up to an argument for limited government. The welfare state has sapped America’s civic energy in places like Fishtown, leaving a population of disengaged, untrusting slackers. It has also diminished upper-class confidence: the well-to-do dare not suggest they have a recipe for the good life. “The underpinning of the welfare state,” Murray writes, “is that, at bottom, human beings are not really responsible for the things they do.”
But might Murray lay the groundwork for fatalism of a different sort? “The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools,” he writes, “is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children.” Murray doesn’t pursue this logic to its next step, and no wonder. If rich, smart people marry other smart people and produce smart children, then it follows that the poor marry—or rather, reproduce with—the less intelligent and produce less intelligent children. Once you accept Murray’s view of genetic destiny, a loss of confidence in the American project on both sides seems entirely justified.
Those of us who reject Murray’s fatalism will still find in Coming Apart a richly detailed corrective to the bumper-sticker arithmetic popularized by the Occupy movement. Raising taxes on the rich, camping out in front of Jamie Dimon’s mansion, overturning Citizens United: such actions don’t have a chance of changing the fortunes of Belmont and Fishtown. If only it were that easy.